Pubdate: Thu, 06 Dec 2012
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2012 Los Angeles Times
Authors: Richard Fausset and Tracy Wilkinson
Page: A6


A Checkered History in Central America Complicates Efforts to Forge 
Closer Alliances.

VILLA NUEVA, Guatemala - Lusvin Jerez has seen, firsthand, the way 
the U.S. has intervened in the security affairs of his obscure corner 
of Central America, 1,300 miles from the Texas border. He can't get 
enough of it. Jerez, 43, once sold home appliances in this violent, 
slum-dotted city on the outskirts of Guatemala City, but he grew 
tired of the extortion payments to gang members. So in January, he 
took a government job overseeing Villa Nueva's new citywide video 
security system, developed with U.S. dollars and expertise, one of 
myriad examples of Washington's involvement to help stabilize the 
violenceracked region.

When Jerez talks about the U.S. inf luence in Guatemala, it isn't to 
dredge up the facts of the U.S.-backed coup d'etat in 1954, or the 
covert CIA support for the brutally repressive right-wing military 
during the country's 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996.

Instead, he will tell you about crime being down more than 30% 
through October, compared with the same period last year.

"What the Americans are offering us is incredible," he said, showing 
off the system's 85 surveillance-camera nerve center. "And we're 
hoping we'll get more help."

Not everyone, however, is delighted with Washington's expanded role 
in Central America. Many in Honduras were enraged when the national 
police, working with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, fired 
on a small boat in the remote Mosquitia area, killing four people. 
Honduran authorities say drugs were being smuggled on the boat. 
Locals, many of them Miskito Indians, said the passengers were 
civilians, and have demanded that the DEA get out.

A local gang problem and the expanding presence of Mexican drug 
cartels have helped bring about the renewed U.S. focus on the region. 
But the increasing involvement is complicated by history. In the 
latter part of the 20th century, American support for the region's 
right-wing governments was applauded by some, yet loathed by others, 
who, among other things, noted that fighting communism often meant 
partnering with an unsavory cast of characters.

Today, as the U.S. forges closer regional alliances, critics worry 
that it will again team up with unreliable governments and police and 
military institutions with troubling human rights records, a kind of 
rerun of the 1980s.

Those concerns have served to limit the expansion of U.S. 
involvement. That, in turn, has prompted criticism that the U.S. is 
not doing enough, given the severity of the problems.

U.S. officials estimate that 84% of U.S.-bound cocaine passes through 
Central America. In Guatemala, the Congressional Research Service 
recently noted, at least 40% of the country is believed to be under 
the "effective control" of drug traffickers. Homicide rates in 
Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are significantly higher than in 
violenceplagued Mexico, yet few cases result in convictions.

Since 2007, Congress has appropriated $496 million for an aid 
program, the Central America Regional Security Initiative. The 
Department of Defense has kicked in $160 million of "counternarcotics 
support" funds over the same period.

Bruce Bagley, a Latin America expert at the University of Miami, says 
those are paltry numbers compared with the $1.9 billion in dedicated 
drug-war funds provided to Mexico since 2007.

The disparity, Bagley argues, is due in part to U.S. domestic 
political realities: The left is historically wary of U.S. 
intervention in the region while the right is trying to rein in 
deficit spending.

Bagley said U.S. lawmakers are also hesitant to assist governments 
that are too weak or corrupt to be able to spend the aid well. "We're 
not so sure how much we can trust these countries," he said.

Central American governments were already struggling with the legacy 
of poverty, inequality, civil warfare and dictatorships when drug 
runners, with their corrupting cash, came roaring through the region 
in the late 2000s, seeking to avoid a robust U.S.-led interdiction 
program in the Caribbean.

In response, the U.S. military's Southern Command, or Southcom, 
stepped up the policing of trafficking routes. In the first 10 months 
of this year, Southcom says the program disrupted the f low of 120 
tons of cocaine and 25,250 pounds of marijuana.

In recent years, the U.S. has also showered Central American 
governments with hardware to help stem the flow of drugs: aircraft, 
boats, X-ray cargo scanners, ballistic vests and wiretapping centers. 
Villa Nueva's video surveillance system is one of several projects 
meant to help fight the explosion in violent crime that has 
destabilized local governments and prompted some residents to head to 
the U.S., often illegally, in search of peace.

But the crime-fighting initiative goes far beyond surveillance 
cameras. The U.S. is also investing in civic projects under the 
theory that the drug war here cannot be won without more skilled and 
trustworthy police and prosecutors, along with an engaged citizenry 
that has reason to hope.

On a recent visit to the neighborhood of Bucaro - a dusty, concrete 
warren of poverty beset with drug and gang problems - officials 
detailed plans for a partially American-funded public school campus, 
basketball court and commercial plaza. At a community center across 
town, U.S. "security initiative" tax dollars provide poor children 
with alternatives to crime such as break-dancing performances and 
clown and juggling programs.

But the United States' list of potential security partners is not encouraging.

In El Salvador, politicians and police are believed to be tied to the 
criminal groups with roots in the military and paramilitary forces 
that sprang up during the country's civil war.

Guatemala's military, which is increasingly being called upon to keep 
the peace here, had a notorious human rights record during its own 
civil war, and nonmilitary security forces are also a cause for concern.

In Honduras, meanwhile, senior government officials participated in 
or supported the 2009 coup that overthrew a democratically elected president.

The Honduran police chief, Juan Carlos "El Tigre" Bonilla, has been 
connected to death squads that allegedly went after gang members and 
kidnappers in a "social cleansing " campaign, according to 
investigators from the U.S. Congress, which in August restricted aid 
to the Honduran police.

In addition to the boat incident, an American DEA agent in June 
killed a suspected drug trafficker during a raid using U.S. 
helicopters in northern Honduras. In July, two American DEA agents 
killed a man they described as a suspected drug trafficker who 
emerged from a cocaine-ferrying plane that had crash-landed, the agency said.

Such shootings highlight how potentially dangerous it is for U.S. 
operatives to dig deeper in the region with unreliable partners.

Bertha Oliva, a veteran Honduran human rights activist, said that 
although drug-trafficking is a severe problem, "it is being used as a 
pretext to militarize the country, with the U.S. leading the charge."

Meanwhile, the Obama administration's security funding request for 
the region is $107 million for fiscal 2013, more than 20% less than 
the appropriation for fiscal 2012.

Even if the targeted countries did get more money, it's not clear 
that they would be capable of spending it effectively.

State Department officials in Guatemala said they recently put 85 
members of the country's national police through the American-style 
vetting process.

Six of them passed.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom